Feature Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images
That hurts. Terribly. Juventus’ match at Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid from last Wednesday followed the script of a perfect movie, until its very ending – when it was like direction suddenly passed in the hands of the most sadistic of horror movie regisseur. A penalty kick awarded in the 93rd minute saved Cristiano Ronaldo and his Blancos, after Juventus had scored three goals, performing an incredible away comeback, and putting the defending European Champions to the ropes.
But then reality hit Bianconeri hard in the face, their shock and anger depicted in captain Gianluigi Buffon’s eyes wide open as he run towards British referee Michael Oliver when he pointed at the penalty kick spot. Buffon scored a red card, and was left without even the chance to try and save that infamous penalty – which will remain as a small, yet terribly painful mark in his coming-to-an-end international career. It shouldn’t have ended like this.
Think about a 40-year-old legend who sees his last chance of getting closer to winning the only missing trophy in his career, vanishing in the space of 30 seconds, and at the end of a match dominated against the strongest club in the world. That might help you understand – still not justify – his violent outburst addressed to referee Oliver when he talked to press after the game.
“Clearly you cannot have a heart in your chest, but a garbage bin,” Buffon said, “if you don’t have the character to walk on a pitch like this in a stadium like this, you can sit in the stands with your wife, your kids, drinking your Sprite and eating crisps (…) You cannot ruin the dreams of a team.”
Still, the desperate venting from the Gigi Nazionale, which was mostly condemned in Italy, even if humanly understandable, has little grounds. The penalty that Oliver awarded when Mehdi Benatia pushed Lucas Vasquez down, five meters from the goal defended by Buffon, was legitimate. A very strict, but still a legitimate interpretation.
Some would say that, in such a borderline situation, 93 minutes into the second leg of a Champions League quarterfinal, other referees would have taken a more flexible approach. Juve haters, who are abundant in Italy – basically the whole portion of the Country that does not support the Agnelli’s family powerful club – argued that no Italian referee would have had the guts to award such a penalty kick against the allegedly-protected-by-the-power Bianconeri in Serie A.
But, you know, this not Italy, they smirked. And so, the dramatic outcome of Real Madrid-Juventus turned into yet another polarizing debate in the Belpaese. One half of the population saw their chance to conquer their coveted Champions League disappear once again. The other half rejoiced at the elimination of a club so hideous that was trying to make even Roma’s fantastic exploit with Barcelona less unique, and ended just inches away from actually doing it…
But from a sheer football movement perspective, what remains at the end of a dazzling European week, is rage and pride at two teams which boosted the image of Italian football in Europe, inflicting a major lezione di calcio to the two most dominant clubs of the last decade – Real Madrid and Barcelona.
And that stays despite Lazio’s following suicide in Europa League on Thursday, with the Biancocelesti conceding four goals to Red Bull Salzburg in the space of 20 minutes. The winds of comeback were definitely blowing in Austria too, but this time the Italians were on the receiving end.
On the other hand, what’s left for the 3500 brave Bianconeri supporters who followed the Old Lady to Madrid, is the memory of a legendary two-leg match, regardless of its bitter outcome. One week ago, they could not but stand up and applause at Cristiano Ronaldo’s stunning overhead kick. They were compensated with three goals scored at Santiago Bernabeu, and the chance for another standing ovation, this time for their colors.
The cautionary tale they will be able to tell their grandchildren one day, is that things not always end in the right way, no matter how good you play. And that you should always, always keep your concentration high. Even when you are just 30 seconds away from a miracle…
The Bianconeri took a lightning-fast lead only 1 minutes and 32 seconds after kick-off, as a delicious chipped cross by Sami Khedira found Mario Mandzukic’s powerful header. And it was still him, the gigantic Croatian striker, to find that exact spot between Real’s goalkeeper Keylor Navas and his right post, to double Juve’s lead in the 37th minute with a new header, on a cross by Stephan Lichtsteiner.
Mario Mandzukic was not in the starting lineup for the first leg match played last week at the Allianz Stadium, and didn’t step foot on the pitch until the 70th minute, when Real was already leading 0-2. Allegri, why?
Between the two goals, the Blancos’ furious assaults had given the chance to Gianluigi Buffon to shine like he was still in his twenties. First, he saved on a shot by Gareth Bale – but what a goal would have it been, if the Welsh’s tap in attempt with his heel hit the target! Then, when Cristiano Ronaldo found Isco with a perfect vertical pass, the portierone raised a wall, and won the one-on-one confrontation with Real’s number 22.
Juventus had also held their own, with an early attempt by Gonzalo Higuain that called Navas to a difficult double save, before a shocking header hit by Real’s Raphael Varane put an end to a high-paced first half.
But miracles sometimes need a little push, and after the break Juventus found some unexpected help from Keylor Navas, who failed to block a seemingly-innocuous cross by Douglas Costa, literally depositing the ball on the feet of Blaise Matuidi. The incredulous French midfielder, also left out of the starting lineup one week ago in Turin, (and again, much to the detriment of coach Allegri, it needs to be said…) only had to tap it in to make the aggregate score even.
A new ingredient in the perfect mix for a fairytale was added in the 77th minute, when Buffon sprung to his left like he was still the one from 10 years ago, to defuse a new dangerous shot by Isco. Gigi thus completed his sweet revenge against the 25-year-old Spaniard who had ridiculed him and the Azzurri only a few months earlier with La Roja.
We will never know how the match would have ended, had it come to extra time, but Juventus would have arguably had the advantage of their enthusiasm to complete their incredible endeavor. Still, with just 30 seconds to go, the script brusquely changed.
CR7 produced a perfect header flank play, raising above Alex Sandro, and serving Lucas Vasquez in the box. Mehdi Benatia charged him from behind, going for the ball, but fatally pushing him down. Referee Oliver had no doubts. Again, strict but legitimate. Four full minutes of protests followed, with a furious Buffon being sent off, and ingloriously leaving the stage of what could very well have been his last international appearance.
And still, in a week where everything seemed possible, couldn’t there be room for yet another, incredible, plot twist? What if substitute goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny saved the penalty? How many did actually think that Cristiano Ronaldo missing his shot was the only logical conclusion for such an incredible game?
But, not this time. CR7 was ice-cold, like champions are when it’s time to go all-in. His execution was perfect. Szczesny read his shot, and dove in the right direction, but couldn’t do anything to stop it. Curtains down. Miracles happen only once.
April 11, 2018 – Champions League 2017-18 Quarter Finals
REAL MADRID-JUVENTUS 1-3
SCORERS: 2′ Mandzukic (J), 37′ Mandzukic (J), 63′ Matuidi (J), 97′ Cristiano Ronaldo (R, pen.)
|REAL MADRID (4-3-1-2): Navas; Carvajal, Varane, Vallejo, Marcelo; Modric (75′ Kovacic), Casemiro (46′ Lucas Vazquez), Kroos; Isco; Cristiano Ronaldo, Bale (46′ Asensio) (Casilla, Benzema, Hernandez, Llorente) Coach: Zidane|
|JUVENTUS (4-3-3): Buffon; De Sciglio (17′ Lichtsteiner), Benatia, Chiellini, Alex Sandro; Khedira, Pjanic, Matuidi; Douglas Costa, Higuain (96′ Szczesny), Mandzukic (Cuadrado, Marchisio, Asamoah, Rugani, Sturaro) Coach: Allegri|
REFEREE: Oliver (United Kingdom)
NOTES: Yellow Cards: Carvajal, Marcelo, Cristiano Ronaldo (R), Pjanic, Mandzukic, Lichtsteiner, Alex Sandro, Douglas Costa, Benatia (J) Red Card: Buffon (J); Extra Time: 1st Half 2′, 2nd Half 7′